A snowy winter could be costly for South Jersey, as supply constraints and demand of rock salt will make clearing ice from roads, parking lots and sidewalks more expensive.
The trend emerged during last winter’s “polar vortex” when rock salt supplies were stretched thin among road crews that use tons at a time and in stores that sell it by the bag. By late February, de-icing rock salt was missing from many area hardware stores and retailers.
Ivy Shore Rosenberg, who runs her family’s Arrow True Value Hardware in Ventnor, is prepared for another brutal winter, this time with an unusually large stockpile of 2,500 bags of rock salt.
She placed the order in June.
“I normally stagger my orders. This time I just stacked it. I went for it and decided I was ordering it all at once,” she said.
Meanwhile, the contract price of rock salt — such as those used by road and parking lot clearing crews — has gone up, in some cases significantly.
Nationally, private companies that clear parking lots and sidewalks are paying more, seeing 50 percent to 100 percent increases, said Martin Tirado, CEO of Snow and Ice Management Association, a Milwaukee-based trade group representing 1,600 snow removal professionals in the U.S. and Canada.
Some private market contracts are ranging from $120 to $150 a ton, compared to $60 to $80 a ton a year ago, he said.
“It’s a supply and demand issue. There’s a lot of demand based on last winter,” Tirado said.
Salt supply is abundant in mines, but it has to be extracted from the ground. Mines have had trouble keeping up with demand, coupled with capacity limits at ports where salt is delivered, he said.
Last year, additional troubles arose when deliveries were getting stuck across a mostly frozen Lake Michigan, he said.
“With salt, it’s a very heavy bulk commodity. It just takes time on the transportation end of it — it’s a slower process than people think it is,” Tirado said.
The situation is somewhat different for public and municipal crews, which get priority over private companies when it comes to securing rock salt.
Area road crews said they have ample supplies to start the winter, although public works departments in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties will pay more per ton this winter.
State Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Schapiro said the state is on the third year of a three-year contract for road salt and does not expect to pay more this year.
Cape May County’s contract price is up 11 percent, or $7.51 more a ton than last year.
“We haven’t experienced anything like that in recent years. Based upon our salt usage last year, if we go through the same amount as last year, that’s a $27,000 increase,” said Dale Foster, who directs the county’s public works department.
The county has a full supply of 2,400 tons of rock salt stored in barns, all purchased at last year’s contract price of $66.01 a ton, he said.
Atlantic County is paying $7.30 more a ton, a 13 percent increase, said William Reinert, head of the county’s department of public works.
This would equate to about $53,000 more to fill an average winter capacity of about 7,300 tons.
Last year, Atlantic County public works used about 13,000 tons on 375 miles of road and more than 20 county facilities, he said.
Donald Olbrich, director of Cumberland County Department of Public Works, said the county has at least 3,000 tons of rock salt in its stockpile already.
Cumberland County had enough salt on hand last year to weather the storms, but the snow was putting demands on supplies in late winter.
“In February we had a situation where we were three weeks before we could get salt but because of our stockpile supplies. we were good for that period of time,” he said.
Cumberland County was testing its winter equipment recenlty to make sure its brine tanks — the water and salt mixture placed on roads before a storm — were functioning properly, he said.
Last year, Cumberland County prepared for 21 storms — including six in January and seven in February, Olbrich said.
As with most projections about the winter — from heating bills to snow removal expenses — the true costs will depend on the severity of the season.
“We don’t know how much we’re going to spend until we know how many storms we’re going to prepare for,” Olbrich said. “It will have a significant impact on the county if we have the number of storms predicted.”
Tirado said that if this becomes a heavy snowfall season and rock salt is in short supply, more entities will need to look at alternatives.
These could include increased plowing or use of abrasives such as sand that help give cars traction but don’t melt ice, he said.
Cape May County last ran out of salt during back-to-back snowstorms in February 2010, when the state DOT delivered an additional 500 tons, Foster said.
“We always look to try to contact our local sand mining outfits to get some sand to be on standby just in case we have to go it,” he said.
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